Rhubarb in Grandma’s Garden

Hot-house rhubarb spotted in shop window, Brunswick, GA  January 2015
Rhubarb plant spotted in front of shop window, Brunswick, GA
January 2015

Grandma and I in the Rhubarb Patch

It’s me, pigtails flapping in the May breezes, skipping beside Grandma toward the rhubarb patch. Behind Grandma’s house toward the woods a thick nest of rhubarb stalks stands sentinel over a ridge facing the twelve sweet cornfield rows. In her garden, the pinkish-red rhubarb spears get back-row status but I think they are pretty enough for her flower garden out front.

“You said you are stopped up – didn’t have any luck when you went to the bathroom.” Grandma with her sunbonnet and apron pulls off the biggest pinkish-red stalks, the green heart-shaped, crinkly leaves falling to the ground with one swath of her knife. “A dose of this will fix that.” She’s looking intently at the rhubarb but I know she’s talking to me.

I have eaten Grandma’s rhubarb sauce before, but I never thought of it as a laxative. “It has roughage in it. It’ll really clean you out.” She runs her rough hands along the spine of the stalk to show me the fibers.

“I see,” I say but right now I wonder if it tastes as good as it looks, so I bite into a stalk and find out too late that it has plenty of pucker power. “Eeee-ow. It tastes sour,” spitting the mouthful out on the ground.

“Goodness gracious, you have to boil it first in sugar water to make it taste good, don’t ya know!” She giggles at my ignorance and finishes pulling off more rhubarb stems with a twist of her wrist like separating a stalk of celery from the bunch. Then we head back toward her kitchen.

Making Rhubarb Sauce

The round, dented aluminum pot is simmering on the stove. With every passing minute the mixture of sugar water and rhubarb cut into 1/2-inch chunks is becoming more ruby red. At the last minute Grandma says, “ Just two shakes,” and I flick my wrist to shake the little can of cinnamon twice as swirls of steam half-scald my hand and wrist.

When it cools, it will taste both tart and sweet. That I know!

Rhubarb Pie from The Mennonite Community Cookbook, 2015


(Adding Strawberries to the rhubarb adds another layer of flavor.)

My Mother's Garden, an embroidered poem
My Mother’s Garden, an embroidered poem in Grandma’s bedroom

What You Might Not Know About Rhubarb

Yes, rhubarb has good cathartic (laxative!) powers, but according to Marion Owen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul, rhubarb is out to save the planet too:

Rhubarb not only saves our plants from aphids, it may also save the planet. In the mid-1980’s, when a hole was discovered in the ozone layer, researchers found that CFC’s were one of the primary reasons for the ozone’s decline.

One of the most common forms of CFC’s is freon, which is used as a refrigerator coolant. Conventional methods for breaking down CFC’s were costly and dangerous. But in 1995, two Yale scientists discovered that oxalic acid, found in rhubarb, helped neutralize CFC’s. Rhubarb to the rescue!

Marion Owen from Kodiak, Alaska, also publishes a newsletter titled The UpBeet Gardener.


Beets, rhubarb, memories of springtime in the garden – all are on the table for today’s conversation!

Coming next: Mennonite Girls Can Cook


Mennonite Flashback I: Rings and Gloves


CareBear Cliff has given me a diamond ring for Easter, baked in a blueberry muffin with a plastic bunny-rabbit stick on top. It is my first piece of jewelry ever and I’m 25 years old. Imagining everyone is as thrilled as I am, I flash the sparkling stone in front of Grandma Longenecker.

“Look, Grandma!” I say ecstatically, offering my hand for her to inspect the glittering diamond solitaire in a silver setting.

She turns ashen-faced, at the sight. At the moment, she says nothing but her eyes communicate betrayal. I’ve betrayed my heritage and my family values, I quickly gather.

Though she knows I am straddling the fence between Mennonite life and something else, she still sees me as a plain girl, who once adhered to the strict teachings of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference rules of 1968, especially Article III, Section 6 on Attire:  “ . . . brethren and sisters shall not use not wear jewelry or other ornaments.”

My joy bubble has popped and I slowly withdraw my hand, which has figuratively been slapped.

Imagine my surprise and bafflement when years later, she sits my sisters and I down around the kitchen table and produces 3 ring boxes. “Now where did they come from?” I wonder. Apparently hiding in her dresser drawer for decades.

Grandma's ring in her fancy years
Grandma’s ring in her fancy years

Before her marriage to Grandpa Henry, she was fancy, and wore all the regalia of  a fashionable Victorian woman: hats with plumes, dresses with bustle and beadwork—and even a bracelet and RINGS!  Now Janice gets Grandma’s opal engagement ring, Jean gets her larger amethyst ring, and I am bequeathed a lovely one with a smaller amethyst and four seed pearls. Well, I declare.

Grandma before her marriage to Mennonite Henry Longenecker
Grandma before her marriage to Mennonite Henry Longenecker
Oil Paintings of Grandma Longenecker and Great Grandma Martin
Oil Paintings of Grandma Longenecker and Great Grandma Martin

And Gloves

Nowadays casual Fridays last all week long, Presidential candidates have ditched the white shirt and tie to look cool, and ladies don’t wear gloves anymore except for warmth in the wintertime. No longer a fashion statement, women’s gloves appear as curiosities in the dressy section of antique shops or museums.

My collection of old gloves
My collection of old gloves

In my collection of old gloves, the plain and fancy mingle. Guess which pair was worn by one of my attendants at our wedding. The choices are at 10:00 o’clock, 12:00 o’clock, and 3:00 o’clock.

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Mennonites and Uncle Sam

The Martin clan gathers together for large family meals at my Grandma Longenecker’s house because Grandma, the oldest in her family, is a wonderful cook and has an enormous kitchen. Everybody likes Grandma, my dad’s mother. Grandma Fannie was a Martin and the Martins are Brinsers, formerly a part of a plain sect called the “River Brethren.” Source

They are not nearly as plain as my mother’s side of the family, except for Great Uncle Joe’s wife Bertha whose covering is cut squarish.  Bertha and Joe have two daughters, Honey and Mary. I press my nose to the window anticipating their arrival. They look like peacocks, favoring vivid purples, blues and greens. And always with a floaty fabric like silk, crepe, or challis. I’m determined to be a fancy girl like them someday.


Aunt Ruthie with fancy Mary Martin Landis and husband

Just as important, though, is what they talk about around the table and afterwards: Politics! And with a pipe. After dinner, cousin Sammy and I will play our little game with Uncle Joe and whoever he’s talking to. We know that Uncle Joe nearly burns his fingers with a lighted match as he talks about the world going up in smoke. In our little game, we try to hold our breath without passing out while he lights the match, tamps down the tobacco, ignites it, and blows out the match. Sammy and I are perched on the stairs behind the mahogany banister to watch today’s performance. Right now below us Uncle Joe is talking to my Dad about old Joe Sta-leen, the Russian Premier.

Striking the match, Uncle Joe exclaims to my dad, “Ya know, Ray, I felt a little uneasy when Truman and the Democrats were in the White House, but now that Eisenhower has taken over, things are looking better for us.” Sammy and I both take a deep breath and try to hang on for the duration.


“Eisenhower is a good, old Pennsylvania Dutchman,” my dad says. “Did you know his mother was a Mennonite from Gettysburg?”

The match between Joe’s thumb and index finger is half-burned, and he has made no effort to light his pipe yet. “Jah,” says Uncle Joe, “That’s what they tell me. We can’t trust those Russians. They’d just as soon bomb us as . . . .” On and on he goes, but he’s edged the match close enough to the pipe tobacco to blow his breath in and out a couple of times. Sammy’s face is starting to look like a red balloon and I nearly start to giggle. If we can just hang on for a few more seconds, . . . our cheeks puff out more and more with unexpelled air.

The match is charred to the absolute edge of Uncle Joe’s fingertips. Any second now he’ll singe his fingers. I hear the slow ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner, adding suspense. With one more deep inhalation, though Joe sucks in, touches the match light to the fragrant tobacco mix, blows out the fire, and a swirl of blue smoke entwines my dad and Uncle Joe in their version of politics.

With one second to go, danger is averted, and Sammy and I catch another deep breath, so we can take turns sliding down the banister again.

In spite of their fervor, my elders believed a myth: Eisenhower’s mother was actually not a Mennonite. Yes, she had Mennonite (River Brethren) ancestry, but she herself was a Jehovah’s Witness. Source

And further, their stance as Anabaptists and pacifists was politically ironic: the President they so avidly supported was a military man, a 5-star general to boot, so opposed to the attitude of non-resistance my people embraced.

A few years later, some of the rich farmland of northern Lancaster County was threatened by a proposed air base. A delegation of plain people including my dad, Grandma, and Uncle Joe, dressed up and drove to Washington D.C. to make their case with government officials.

Washington DC_small group

Washington DC_group of 3

Sadie Greider, Grandma, and Daddy

In the end, further investigation found that there were sinkholes (sinkholes!) on the farm land, making it unsatisfactory as a site for a military air base. The land spared, they thanked God Almighty.

Hats, Fire and Ice

The dusty, brown Pennsylvania Railroad train clatters along the tracks behind the woods as we approach Grandma’s house. Mame Goss, Grandma’s cousin, sits close to the bay window with a bag of hats. I notice her merry eyes and smile lines, but Mother comments on her wrinkled skin, skin made so by too much makeup.  Mame’ll let my sisters and me see inside the bag, but not before she chats with Grandma over a cup of garden mint tea. Mame Goss clerks in Laverty’s Millinery Shop, a store I’ve never seen but which shimmers with forbidden delights in my mind, nonetheless.

TeacupHorizontalJanice, Jean, and I think our older girl neighbors are allowed to express themselves properly. When I go down to see “Howdy Doody” on the Rentzels’ TV (Mennonites didn’t have TVs back then), I notice that Sissy Rentzel has a parade of nail polish bottles lined up on the windowsill of her bedroom: bright red, baby pink, orangey red with Tangee lipstick to match, darker red, hot pink, and a bottle of clear polish like Karo syrup. I’d love to experiment with what’s inside, but I don’t now. I feel uncomfortable asking Sissy Rentzel to try some.


Anna Martha Groff, Sis Groff to us, is another story. And she is so grown-up, we think. I see her palette of lipsticks on her vanity table, one of them Revlon’s Fire and Ice. She’ll probably let me try some on. I could become a siren in red or an ice princess. So I experiment and cavort around in her bedroom with the painted lips of a hussy. Soon I’ll have to rub off the evidence with tissue before I go home and hope nobody, especially Mom, notices. My sisters and I are crazy for color. Out by the rose bushes in summer, we paste bright, velvety petals to our lips. Banned from the world of bright lipstick and matching nail polish, we improvise with natural blooms. We act silly.


We’re back in Grandma’s kitchen again. Mame is one step closer to revealing the treasures in her bag now. Soon we lay eyes on the partly smashed trousseau of hats, left over from the spring season. We fight over who gets what, of course.

“Here’s a straw hat with a polka dot bow, “ I say but cast it aside. Janice and Jean don’t pick it up either. They are eying the red satin bows and lavender netting attached to other headgear.

“Hey, I want this one,” Janice and Jean tussle over a swoopy hat with pink flowers. Jean finally picks up a white thing that looks like an upside-down, flat-bottomed boat with a wad of blue tulle tied in a fluffy bow in the back. Janice’s is flat and round and dark, not my taste, with black-eyed Susan circling the straw hat. I get the best hat, I believe. It is flat and round too, but navy, and studded with azalea pink silk flowers around the edges. Best of all, I can pull a dark blue net over my face. Instantly, I become a woman of mystery and allure.

We take our new-found treasures up to Grandma’s bedroom and indulge in more fantasy. The space between her marble-topped vanity and tall headboard becomes our runway. We take turns prancing in front of her vanity mirror with wavy glass, cocking our heads just so and smiling at our reflections.

GrandmaVanity      GrandmaHeadboard_mod_180

Later back at our house, Mom takes a picture of us in front of the garden of peonies and zinnias in the back yard. She holds the black square Kodak camera firmly with fingers plump as the butter she loves. I stare at her blue and white checked feed-bag apron over a matching home-made dress, so I don’t blink. In an instant, the shutter freezes our fashionable images at ages 3, 5, and 8. There’s plenty of time later to coax our long braids into the Mennonite style, pinned tightly to our heads with black wire hairpins.


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Grandma’s Kitchen: Recipes & More


Grandma’s Kitchen: Recipes and More

Grandma Longenecker’s kitchen was many yards long with the necessities for cooking at one end where an old cook-stove squatted and the comforts of dining on an old oak table at the other end, bounded by three bay windows.

Grandmas Kitchen Booklet+p14_12x9_300

One of my earliest memories is seeing flames leaping out of Grandma’s old cook-stove as she used her metal tool to lift the burner, just as you see in the drawing.

Everything Grandma made was from scratch. From sauerkraut to pot pie—even cakes of lye soap, “Homemade is best,” she’d say.

                             GmaSauerkrautArticle Grandma & Sauerkraut Crock

GGrandma_Joel_Crista+Pot Pie_16x9_300

I have vivid memories of helping Grandma make potpie. We rolled out the dough and cut it into squares. Then, standing on a chair beside her at the stove, I would spot a hole in the chicken broth seething in the kettle and try to drop in a square of dough without singeing my fingers. It was warm and steamy and more fun than mud-pies, plus the results were edible. Often served with her yummy coleslaw, tart with vinegar, and made with cabbage from her vegetable garden.

Table set for Christmas Dinner 2004:

2004_Christmas Table_closeup_5in 2004_Christmas Table_4in

What soul food do you connect with your Grandma, other relative?

Up next: Mom’s Kitchen, Aunt Ruthie’s Kitchen

© Marian Beaman